Institutional Best Practices for Regular and Substantive Interaction Compliance

Concurrent Session 3

Brief Abstract

“Regular and substantive interaction” (RSI) is used in the “distance education” definition to delineate federal financial aid eligibility for courses. Based on recent information from the U.S. Department of Education, panelists will share clever strategies to comply and discuss how compliance could support best practice overall.


Russ Poulin leads the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies, which advocates for effective practices and policies for digital learning in higher education. WCET’s members represent institutions, state agencies, corporations, and non-profit organizations from all fifty states. In paying attention to federal, state, and institution policies, he twice represented the distance education and competency-based education communities in federal negotiated rulemaking processes. The Presidents’ Forum, Excelsior College, the National University Technology Network, and the Online Learning Consortium have all recognized Russ for his contributions. He is also partial to movies, cats, and his wife, Laurie. Contact: or @RussPoulin.
Josh began serving online students and faculty in 1998, as the first distance learning help desk employee at the College of Central Florida. He has experienced the pains associated with the growth of online learning from the administrative, as well as the student perspective. He has served as his college's representative to the Members Council for Distance Learning and Student Support, of the Florida Virtual Campus, since 2010 and is currently serving as chair. This combination of student, administrative and policy experience services him well, as he seeks to continually improve the learning experience for online students.

Extended Abstract

Congress created a distinction between the definitions of “distance education” and “correspondence education” for purposes of federal financial aid eligibility. The distinction is that distance education courses include “regular and substantive interaction” (or RSI) whereas correspondence courses do not. This distinction stemmed from concerns relating to consumer protection and potential fraud in correspondence education and the growth of distance education.

What this distinction means is that institutions offering more than 50 percent of their total course offerings via correspondence education or enrolling more than 50 percent of their students in correspondence courses are not eligible to participate in Title IV financial aid programs.

On July 1, 2021, the Department of Education released the final set of proposed regulations stemming from the 2019 Negotiated Rulemaking process (the Distance Education and Innovation Regulations). As part of these regulations, the definition of “distance education” in Chapter 34, §600.2 was updated, including specifically defining the critical terms: instructor, regular, and substantive.  This was an important update, as “regular and substantive interaction” is what distinguishes “distance education” from correspondence, which has important implications for federal financial aid eligibility. However, until 2021, those terms were not defined by regulation, and guidance on the meaning of those terms was incomplete.

Last year, we wrote about our analysis of the U.S. Department of Education’s (ED or Department) recently effective regulations that defined regular and substantive interaction. Along with that blog post, we wrote a letter to the Department requesting guidance on the application of regular and substantive interaction to the definition of distance education in 34 CFR 600.2 and another issue regarding when distance education programs need to be approved by accrediting agencies. In talking with personnel from institutions about these updated regulations, there were commonly raised questions, concerns, and some divergent interpretations of the definitions.

In late 2022, we received a response from the Department to our questions. We do not anticipate any official guidance from the Department to further clarify any questions relating to regular and substantive interaction and its application. More information will be learned as institutions undergo program reviews, departmental audits, and accreditor reviews, as we hope to gather some insights from those who may be willing to share. This has important implications because, over the years, interpretations of requirements were pieced together from departmental guidance and Office of Inspector General (OIG) audit reports. So, when it comes to some more nuanced questions, answers may well not be received if and until an institution undergoes a review of the issue.

We believe the sharing of the information is essential to improve upon best practices. In this session, we want to share the most recent Department information with those in attendance, but also spotlight institutional experiences and strategies for compliance.

In this session we plan to engage with the attendees in a game show format to learn their level of regular and substantive interaction knowledge. We also want to engage attendees with an interactive panel discussion of potential scenarios and institutional strategies to address compliance.  We will conclude with the specific elements of “what’s next”?

Finally, our presentation is intended to share direction with the attendees. Resources will be provided to the attendees to point them to analysis of these regulations, institutional strategies, and next steps that can be taken at the institution.

Key learning objectives:

  • Effective Federal Regulation Elements
    • History of Regular and Substantive Interaction
    • Current definitions and information from the U.S. Department of Education
    • What’s next?
  • Relation to accreditation
    • What role accreditors play in compliance
    • Accreditor perspectives and expectations
    • What’s next?
  • How should institution’s address compliance
    • Discuss a variety of institutional strategies (ex. policies, instructional design, training, compliance management)
    • Use available resources:  Join the State Authorization Network (SAN) and WCET.
  • Questions and Discussion Time